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The folly of seeking the perfect speaker.

Punter

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I recently binged a series of videos on the Parts Express YouTube channel that showcased their annual speaker design competitions. Prior to stumbling on these videos I was completely unaware that such things existed. I have to say the designs were fascinating and ranged from a 4' tweeter made of cardboard and packing tape through to the most beautiful and esoteric objects, particularly in the "unlimited" category. The makers and designers skills were also very varied and some of the creations had levels of craftsmanship equal to any of the ultra-expensive high-end stuff I've seen. What really hit me about this was that they all had a different take on what made a good speaker. Some were into open baffle and others, ports or transmission lines. Crossovers were another area of distinct difference even though they weren't gone into in great detail. Materials obviously had a similar diversity and the whole thing came together as a statement about speakers themselves and what people want from them.

I don't know about you, but I can distinctly tell the difference between a musical instrument playing live or being reproduced by a set of speakers. Over the years I have had the opportunity to experience both on numerous occasions and there's always something missing from an instrument reproduced by a speaker. You may say "well of course, the recorded instrument has passed through so many processes from being played live to being heard on a set of speakers!" and you'd be right. Recently, there was someone playing a solo trumpet in a community hall near my house. I can't see the hall, it's down the hill from my house, probably a five minute walk. When I heard that trumpet though, I knew it wasn't a recording. That sound was clear and pure, the same thing reproduced on speakers would have lost that and I think it's more noticeable at a distance when the two sources are compared. I've no doubt many here will have experienced the effect of which I speak.

Now I know that many people will claim to have sat in front of a set of speakers that, when the listener closed their eyes, they could convince themselves that the musician was in the room with them. This is the Audiophile dream is it not? Personally, I've heard some great speakers but I've also attended many acoustic music performances and for my money, no speaker can truly reproduce that. Hardly surprising when, as previously mentioned, getting the music from an instrument to a speaker involves a long process chain. Finally, in truth, speakers are far from the most ideal way to reproduce the effect of stereo hearing and sound. Headphones are a far superior way to experience the effect of a stereo recording.

So where does the trail lead on the quest for the best or the perfect pair of speakers? As there are so many designs and so many schools of thought on how speakers should be designed, how can anyone arrive at a single type? Fact is, you can't, it's an impossible situation. So from there, it simply comes down to personal preference and in many cases, budget. I personally know someone who has been on this quest for decades. This guy currently has at least three sets of speakers ranging from $10,000 to $20,000 retail but going back over the years, he has had many others. Every set he buys is "really good" but.............. always a "but" there's always something that's just not quite the way he would like it to be, maybe the next set will hit all the marks! And so the quest continues, chasing the phantom concept that one day, he'll hear a speaker that's indistinguishable from live! Let's face it, that's what the ultimate is, live sound from a speaker, the ideal. perfect speaker. It's just not going to happen.
munich_high_end_audio_show_report_review_matej_isak_mono_and_stereo_2023_high_end_audiophile_luxury_audio_music_00006.jpg
 

fpitas

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Horns, for all their quirks, can give that sense of realism. I've had guests jerk their heads around and stare at the speakers.
 

fpitas

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I agree with your argument in general terms. Greg Timbers of JBL has said similar things. I'll add that some people may not want realism.
 

Zensō

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Personally, I feel listening over speakers or headphones is its own reality that doesn’t need to perfectly mimic a live performance. I liken the idea to representational versus abstract art. That said, I do prefer transparent reproduction, not to mimic an instrument perfectly, but to reproduce as accurately as possible what was heard in the mixing/mastering room.
 
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fpitas

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Even though the perfect speaker doesn't exist, I have to think that most people can find one that suits their expectations. That admittedly can be a long, expensive journey.
 

DVDdoug

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I don't know about you, but I can distinctly tell the difference between a musical instrument playing live or being reproduced by a set of speakers.
A LOT of live music is coming out of speakers. Concert halls and theaters use "sound reinforcement" and actors on stage all have wireless headset mics these days. Churches use PA systems too.

Now I know that many people will claim to have sat in front of a set of speakers that, when the listener closed their eyes, they could convince themselves that the musician was in the room with them.

I don't think I could be fooled in my living room but I probably could be fooled in a concert hall. And a live band or orchestra wouldn't really fit in my living room, and it wouldn't sound right in the small room. I feel like my room is a bigger limitation than my speakers.

Headphones are a far superior way to experience the effect of a stereo recording.
Except you normally get directional cues by moving your head and with headphones the soundstage moves with your head. Most people (including me) don't get a realistic soundstage illusion anyway. I hear the sound coming from somewhere near my forehead and lots of people hear it coming from inside their head... I don't get a "realistic" soundstage from my speakers either but for me it's better than headphones.
 

Purité Audio

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Little point comparing live sound and its reproduction, propagation of sound is completely different, all one can hope to do is reproduce the record/file as accurately as possible.
Keith
 

NTK

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Video from AES Oral History Gallery - Edgar Villchur of AR on "live vs. recorded demonstration concerts" - his variation on Edison's tone tests.

 

MattHooper

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I recently binged a series of videos on the Parts Express YouTube channel that showcased their annual speaker design competitions. Prior to stumbling on these videos I was completely unaware that such things existed. I have to say the designs were fascinating and ranged from a 4' tweeter made of cardboard and packing tape through to the most beautiful and esoteric objects, particularly in the "unlimited" category. The makers and designers skills were also very varied and some of the creations had levels of craftsmanship equal to any of the ultra-expensive high-end stuff I've seen. What really hit me about this was that they all had a different take on what made a good speaker. Some were into open baffle and others, ports or transmission lines. Crossovers were another area of distinct difference even though they weren't gone into in great detail. Materials obviously had a similar diversity and the whole thing came together as a statement about speakers themselves and what people want from them.

I don't know about you, but I can distinctly tell the difference between a musical instrument playing live or being reproduced by a set of speakers. Over the years I have had the opportunity to experience both on numerous occasions and there's always something missing from an instrument reproduced by a speaker. You may say "well of course, the recorded instrument has passed through so many processes from being played live to being heard on a set of speakers!" and you'd be right. Recently, there was someone playing a solo trumpet in a community hall near my house. I can't see the hall, it's down the hill from my house, probably a five minute walk. When I heard that trumpet though, I knew it wasn't a recording. That sound was clear and pure, the same thing reproduced on speakers would have lost that and I think it's more noticeable at a distance when the two sources are compared. I've no doubt many here will have experienced the effect of which I speak.

Now I know that many people will claim to have sat in front of a set of speakers that, when the listener closed their eyes, they could convince themselves that the musician was in the room with them. This is the Audiophile dream is it not? Personally, I've heard some great speakers but I've also attended many acoustic music performances and for my money, no speaker can truly reproduce that. Hardly surprising when, as previously mentioned, getting the music from an instrument to a speaker involves a long process chain. Finally, in truth, speakers are far from the most ideal way to reproduce the effect of stereo hearing and sound. Headphones are a far superior way to experience the effect of a stereo recording.

So where does the trail lead on the quest for the best or the perfect pair of speakers? As there are so many designs and so many schools of thought on how speakers should be designed, how can anyone arrive at a single type? Fact is, you can't, it's an impossible situation. So from there, it simply comes down to personal preference and in many cases, budget. I personally know someone who has been on this quest for decades. This guy currently has at least three sets of speakers ranging from $10,000 to $20,000 retail but going back over the years, he has had many others. Every set he buys is "really good" but.............. always a "but" there's always something that's just not quite the way he would like it to be, maybe the next set will hit all the marks! And so the quest continues, chasing the phantom concept that one day, he'll hear a speaker that's indistinguishable from live! Let's face it, that's what the ultimate is, live sound from a speaker, the ideal. perfect speaker. It's just not going to happen.
munich_high_end_audio_show_report_review_matej_isak_mono_and_stereo_2023_high_end_audiophile_luxury_audio_music_00006.jpg

I agree with much of what you wrote, especially the "can tell it's live" thing.

I've been able to somewhat slip in to the illusion of hearing live sound from my system, from the sweet spot, but that definitely takes using some imagination, just like watching a movie. But though reproducing the sound of live music may be an unreachable goal (and maybe even one most don't necessarily want), it doesn't mean one can't get closer rather than further to "live sound." I often like when I get, to my ears, closer.

As to actually recreating the sound of live instruments, I've mentioned a number of times that I as near-as-dammit did that with some omnis I owned, the MBL omnis.
Recordings I'd made of instruments we played in our house, e.g. my son practicing saxophone, sounded eerily real from outside the room. That's the important part.
If you are in the stereo sweet spot you are getting cues, due to the inadequacies of the very format, that what you are hearing isn't real. That phantom-like phasiness to the sound among others. But outside the room you aren't necessarily getting those particular artificial cues, and you just get the fact there is a real acoustic source in the room - the speakers - combined with the room sound, which you hear from outside the room. In which case plenty of audiophiles have noted they have heard closer to a live sensation "from outside the room" than from the sweet spot. I actually fooled some guests that my son was playing sax in that room, even though it was just coming through the omni speakers.

BTW, I've found those Aries-Cerat speakers, pictured in your post, very intriguing. They are definitely high on the list of speakers I'd like to hear, just due to their intriguing design attempt and aesthetics. I've "heard" them numerous times on youtube videos through my home theater system, which is a fun way to pretend to hear different speakers.
 

MattHooper

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Just after you buy the perfect speaker, a perfecter one comes along. Dag nab it!

I admit I've fallen for that occasionally.

Years back I was originally set on Thiel CS6 speakers but they came out with their last flagship the CS3.7, so I bought that one. That worked: it was better than the CS6.

More recently I had my other speakers updated to the newer version (change of drivers/crossover). Fortunately the company doesn't do this too often, something like 9 years between iterations (vs some manufacturers you buy a speaker and a year later it's "New Improved model 7.2 !". But I'm actually happy I did as it scratched that itch and I don't think about it any more (couldn't afford to...)
 

dlaloum

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ESL's can create that illusion of reality from outside the room - but mostly with SPL constrained instruments Violin, voice, string instruments - with things like a trumpet at full volume - they get close, but can't replicate the SPL's of the real thing, and tend to compress.

So different speakers will achieve the illusion to different levels depending on the recording involved!
 

pablolie

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Live performances are very often very flawed, although they remain a very rewarding experience. Last weekend I attended Smokey Robinson in a beautiful open air venue (Mountain Winery in Saratoga, CA). Very memorable.indeed but for SQ I'll listen to the albums anytime.

A month ago I went to see a classical concert. Love putting on the tux and the champagne during a break, but honestly the stuff sounds better on my home system.

Different experiences. But for SQ I will take a good recording at home. For excitement and appreciation I will always keep attending live.
 

robwpdx

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I have been very fortunate to hear a lot of live music, in good halls, music captured by the best European microphones through (relatively excellent for the time - 1970s) consoles and monitored through (relatively excellent or the time - 1970s, EQed to the room) speakers in acoustically designed control rooms - Hidley rooms*, through (the best of the time - 1970s) tape and back out in the same listening environment.

They are all different. I would not discount the emotional bias towards a live performance.

If you talk to a musician, they can quote many recordings of the same piece by different orchestras, and different conductors, on the interpretation of the piece. You would find the same in jazz and pop, for recordings and live performances. So the interpretation is more important than the speakers.

So my philosophy is buy what you can afford, do the best you can for your room, EQ as flat as you can. Then see & hear as much live music as you can!

*Hidley started Westlake, there are many pictures of Westlake control rooms. They are a room within a room with no parallel surfaces and farfield monitors. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Hidley Our control rooms were very similar to Westlake A and B. They were completely decoupled from the building with their own foundations sitting on sand.
 
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DWPress

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Having had the benefit of performing on stage, listening in the audience in venues of all sizes and enjoying some very quality home systems I gotta say, for pure critical listening pleasure, the home system wins so the best speakers one can afford/build is always my first word of advice. I built mine, and they've evolved considerably over the past 30 years, ugly huge monkey coffins, I'm quite happy.

What's recorded in the studio is often different than the tour performance anyway with added tracks, effects, etc so a different experience in more than one way. Intimate settings like house concerts take the cake though, I was lucky enough a couple weeks ago to catch Bruce Cockburn in a barn with less than 30 friends a few weeks back and it was simply one of best listening experiences I've ever had, transcendental....
 
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valerianf

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Lets say it in a simple way: ideally listening music at home should provide a better sound quality than in the car, and watching movie at home should provide a better sound quality than at the movie theater. Then the sound system can be frozen for some time.
To reach this level, I am always doing the same process: first I am trying to adjust (i.e. DSP) the electronics. It could take some time, step by step.
Then comes to the hard part: the speakers.
I am making measurements and simulations to find their weak points.
Then I am replacing some of the drivers by some more performant models, and designing a new crossover filter.
It is a time consuming hobby, but the result is rewarding.
I do not feel confidant spending a bunch of money for a top level design.
How to be sure that the drivers are sufficiently performant, the crossover well designed and the BR well tuned?

But if today I had to buy some tower speakers I would make an exception: a pair of Philarmonic Audio HT towers.
 
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LouB

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Maybe late to the party but in all my years of buying audio gear I never considered comparing speakers to live instruments. Also I've never seen a review of a speaker where they played an instrument and than played same music recorded and compared the sound, is this done ?
Also if the speaker nailed the sound of a given instrument I couldn't imagine it being able to mimic them all way to many variables.
 

TonyJZX

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i'd put the live instrument vs. speakers like this

i grew up in a household where a sibling practiced piano... so often i heard the piano in a 2nd room and it never passed my mind... but in reality if i'm playing some piano music even on my $10,000+ system.... say Lang Lang... it never quite sounds the same as a real piano

people here have said how hard it is to record and accurately play back plain piano

so if you play back music on your megabuck systems and you go out of the room to get a beer and sandwich... does it ever feel like Led Zeppelin or Queen is playing in your other room?
 

MattHooper

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No sound system I've heard can reproduce the richness and variety of timbre I hear in real life sounds.

So all I ask is that a system remind me of some of the aspects I hear in real instruments. Enough so that it "feels right." Acoustic guitar is one of my litmus tests (I own and play one). When I play my guitar, or listen to someone playing acoustic guitar (steel strings) my mental impressions are of a woody warmth beneath the sound of the vibrating body, and strings that sparkle with a sort of rich, golden harmonics. (Again, that's what I see in my mind's eye). If acoustic guitar doesn't sound like that through a system I know I'm not going to get on well with it. I was listening to a different system not long ago, some of my demo tracks with acoustic guitar, and eyes closed the sound was totally unconvincing. It was vivid but the "wrong timbral color," like a TV with the color reduced to greys.

When I played the same tracks on my home system...even after just playing my own guitar...it was like damn! That is bang on! Pretty much exactly the timbre I percieve from my real guitar. That blows me away when I hear it, and most other instruments will tend to sound more "right" as well.
 

dlaloum

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Maybe late to the party but in all my years of buying audio gear I never considered comparing speakers to live instruments. Also I've never seen a review of a speaker where they played an instrument and than played same music recorded and compared the sound, is this done ?
Also if the speaker nailed the sound of a given instrument I couldn't imagine it being able to mimic them all way to many variables.

Yes - Paul Klipsch was famous for doing exactly this with a grand piano and his Klipschorn in the 1940's I believe.
 
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